Saying that "excessive fire" was used in a recent raid on the West Bank village of Nahhalin, in which five Arabs were shot to death, an Israeli army investigation is putting the blame for the incident on two border police officers in charge of the raid and an intelligence officer who planned it, military sources said Friday.
The army report specifically denied that the killings were planned or that a massacre occurred. The two commanding officers lost control of the situation, and the unit was not adequately prepared by the intelligence officer to enter the combative village, the report said.
The soldiers responded with rifle fire when they came under attack from stone-throwing youths, the investigation concluded. The border police expended their supply of rubber and plastic bullets before turning to lead-tipped rounds, the report concluded.
The findings were given to Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the military chief of staff, on Thursday by Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, the West Bank military commander, an army spokesman said.
Final Report Due
"The mechanics are done; what has to be decided is the disciplinary action, the spokesman said. The final report is expected next week.
The Nahhalin raid, designed according to army officials to arrest stone throwers, occurred before dawn on April 13. The one-day toll of fatalities at the village, which is located in a valley near Bethlehem, was the highest of the year and the second highest at a single place during the Arab uprising, which is now in its 17th month.
Israel came under international criticism for the killings; the International Red Cross took the unusual step of openly condemning the raid, accusing the border police of firing indiscriminately.
Last week, Shomron defended the actions of the border police, saying the responsibility for the high death count rested mainly with the village residents themselves.
"Those killed there, and also the casualties sustained by the border police are first and foremost a result of real violence, which was used against the border police," he said. "The source of this entire incident . . . is primarily the result of this violence."
Three border policemen were slightly injured by stones, the army reported. Besides the five killed, about 20 Arabs were wounded.
The Nahhalin deaths renewed a controversy over Israel's tactics in battling the intifada, as the uprising is called in Arabic, as well as the use of the border police, who some critics in Israel accuse of using brutal methods.
In recent months, Israeli troops have been entering villages late at night, especially in the Bethlehem area, for the express purpose of detaining suspected stone throwers. When the soldiers and police enter the villages, they use loudspeakers to call for the sleeping residents to gather outside for their identification cards to be checked.
On several occasions, troops have broken windows of houses and cars and shot up cisterns, saying that they were responding to hails of thrown stones.
Preliminary reports on Nahhalin said that a contingent of 30 border policemen had to fight its way into the village. Four of the dead were killed in the center of Nahhalin near the mosque. Residents of the village reported a sniper shooting randomly from a second story balcony of a half-finished house across from the mosque.
At least two dogs and a donkey were also killed. Several homes along the entrance to the village were pockmarked with bullet holes.
The 5,500-member strong border police, which normally patrols the country's frontier, nominally reports to the Israeli Police Ministry, although its activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are under control of the army.
Regular Troops Withdraw
Army sources said that a reinforcement team of regular army troops that entered the village got into a dispute with the border police, who were demanding more ammunition from them. A shoving match broke out and the regular soldiers withdrew.
Under Israeli army rules of engagement, the use of lead bullets is limited to situations of "clear and present danger to life," Brig. Gen. Amnon Straschnow said in a recent interview.
Plastic bullets, dangerous at a shorter range, "are not aimed to be lethal," he added.
"In all cases, it very much depends on the circumstances," said Straschnow, who declined to comment on the border police case specifically.
The Nahhalin incident was especially notable at the time because it coincided with the end of a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to Washington. Officials of the Bush Administration had indicated a desire that Israel and the Palestinians begin a period of "confidence building" to lead up to peace talks.
New Level of Violence
Beginning with the Nahhalin violence, the intifada entered one of its most violent phases, with a sharp increase in Palestinian casualties. Since April 13, 20 Palestinians have died in clashes with soldiers. Arabs, meanwhile, have killed at least 10 other Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israeli authorities, including one who was beaten to death in Nablus on Friday.
Armed Israeli settlers have also raided several Arab villages to retaliate for incidents of stones being thrown at their vehicles as they drive along highways in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The raiding settlers have broken windows and shot cisterns, retreating when Israelis soldiers arrive to restore order.
On Friday, Palestinians clashed with troops and Jewish settlers in Hebron, Nablus and Gaza, leaving at least eight Arabs wounded. In Jerusalem, a car exploded outside police headquarters, seriously wounding the Palestinian driver, who police said may have been trying to plant a booby-trapped bomb.
15,000 at Mosque
And in Jerusalem, about 15,000 Muslims prayed at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the old city under the surveillance of a police helicopter, with hundreds of riot-equipped police officers stationed outside Temple Mount. There was no violence.
But police turned away hundreds of young Palestinians from the mosque, which was the scene of a riot April 7 when several Jewish worshipers were injured at the nearby Western Wall by stone-throwing Palestinians.